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How to enter (and hopefully WIN) a Photo Contest

The folks at Yankee have asked me to blog about photo contests. They asked me to do this because of the great amount of tact I use when critiquing images posted on the New England Photography–Yankee Magazine Facebook site. In the spirit of tactful, supportive feedback, let me offer some constructive suggestions for entering photo contests.

There is a difference between a photo sharing site and a contest. Photo sharing sites allow you to post pictures for others to view and review. This is a fun way to show your images to family, friends, or strangers. The comments are almost always positive, so it’s uplifting to share. Or you could post on websites aimed at people with similar interests, like the New England Photography–Yankee Magazine Facebook page. Search the web for photo sharing sites and have fun!

Why should you submit photos to a contest? To WIN!!! Seriously! If you don’t expect to win, why would you enter a contest? There’s no feedback, no critique, and there’s only one first place prize. Decide if your picture could be the prizewinner.

First, you need to evaluate the photo critically. Strip off the emotional attachment you feel for it. It doesn’t matter that you climbed the highest mountain and got frostbite to get it. It doesn’t matter that the puppy in the picture dragged children from a burning building. The judges don’t see that backstory. All they see is the picture. All they see are the hundreds of pictures they must eliminate before they can find the winner.

Here are the criteria I would use to evaluate a picture before entering a contest:

RELEVANCE: Does it conform to the contest rules and is it relevant to the subject? If the subject is winter, don’t send yellow leaves. If the rules say New England, don’t send your Bermuda winter cruise. If the deadline is February, Christmas is probably old news. Don’t send a picture of something that just happened to be in winter. Send a picture that shouts, THIS IS WINTER IN NEW ENGLAND!

TECHNICAL: Is the picture technically excellent? Is the exposure right — black blacks, white whites, and a good range of tones between them (unless it’s foggy or snowing)? Is the subject in focus? Is the horizon straight? Is the picture composed well? Can you fix it in photo-editing software? If not, try again with a different image.

IMPACT: This may be the most important point. Will it knock them out? White-on-white snow on tree branches? They’ll see a million — what makes yours stand out? A snowman? If he isn’t wearing a kilt and doing a jig, what makes him stand out? Does your picture have bright, attractive colors (especially red)? Does it have an unusual subject? Does it really have impact? When I talked with a Yankee editor, she said something that impressed me: They want a surprise. Submit only your best, most surprising, Wow-Wow-WOW shots!

PRIZEWINNER: Does it have a chance of winning? Compare your photo with the other entries. Better yet, compare it with the ones that have been most viewed or most e-mailed or selected as finalists. Can yours compete with them? IS IT THE BEST? Then submit it with pride!

Now a disclaimer. I have opinions, but not a crystal ball. As soon as I say you shouldn’t send pictures of your kids, someone will submit a wonderful photo of a kid wearing a red coat playing in the snow and that picture will win. If I say don’t submit wildlife shots, they’ll pick a cardinal on a snowy branch. Photo judges are fickle beasts and sometimes their ways are very mysterious. Use your discretion. There are exceptions to every rule. Surprise them!

Enter Yankee Magazine‘s Winter Photo Contest

Susan Cole Kelly is a compulsive shutterbug based in Boston and downeast Maine. You can see more of her work at

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